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For Families of Japanese Abducted by North Korea, Trump Visit Brings Spotlight

TOKYO — Their stories are wrenching narratives of normalcy interrupted: the young couple taken while on a date at the beach, the single mother snatched on her way to pick up her toddlers after work, and the teenager who never made it home from badminton practice.

Four decades ago, according to the Japanese government, at least 17 Japanese citizens vanished at the hands of North Korea, leaving their families with precious little information. North Korea has acknowledged only that its agents abducted 13 Japanese in the 1970s and ‘80s. Five of them were returned home in 2002; North Korea has said the rest died long ago.

  • 檢視大圖 Masaru Honma’s family pictures: From left, his sister, Yaeko Taguchi, at 5; Ms. Taguchi as an adult, left, with her four children and a friend; and a 2010 meeting in Japan between (from left) Mr. Honma, the former North Korean spy Kim Hyon-hui, Koichiro Iizuka (Ms. Taguchi’s son) and Shigeo Iizuka (Ms. Taguchi’s brother).

    Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

    Masaru Honma’s family pictures: From left, his sister, Yaeko Taguchi, at 5; Ms. Taguchi as an adult, left, with her four children and a friend; and a 2010 meeting in Japan between (from left) Mr. Honma, the former North Korean spy Kim Hyon-hui, Koichiro Iizuka (Ms. Taguchi’s son) and Shigeo Iizuka (Ms. Taguchi’s brother).

  • 檢視大圖 Some abductees’ relatives get hope from Kim Hyon-hui, the former North Korean spy, who has said the Japanese are still alive. Ms. Kim’s book describes the plight of Yaeko Taguchi, who she says tutored her in acting Japanese.

    Jean Chung for The New York Times

    Some abductees’ relatives get hope from Kim Hyon-hui, the former North Korean spy, who has said the Japanese are still alive. Ms. Kim’s book describes the plight of Yaeko Taguchi, who she says tutored her in acting Japanese.

  • 檢視大圖 Ms. Kim, with her mouth taped, arriving in Seoul, South Korea, in 1987, after she helped bomb a Korean Air Lines jet.

    Kim Chon-kil/Associated Press

    Ms. Kim, with her mouth taped, arriving in Seoul, South Korea, in 1987, after she helped bomb a Korean Air Lines jet.

  • 檢視大圖 Teruaki Masumoto, a brother of Rumiko Masumoto, who was abducted from a beach while on a date with her boyfriend in 1978. Every two weeks he broadcasts a message directed at North Korea with shortwave radio.

    Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

    Teruaki Masumoto, a brother of Rumiko Masumoto, who was abducted from a beach while on a date with her boyfriend in 1978. Every two weeks he broadcasts a message directed at North Korea with shortwave radio.

  • 檢視大圖 Teruaki Masumoto’s picture of his elder sister, Rumiko. North Korea has acknowledged kidnapping her and has said she is dead.

    Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

    Teruaki Masumoto’s picture of his elder sister, Rumiko. North Korea has acknowledged kidnapping her and has said she is dead.

  • 檢視大圖 Takuya, left, and Tetsuya Yokota, Megumi Yokota’s twin brothers. She was abducted by North Koreans in 1977 when she was 13. “I don’t think they would easily kill a precious diplomatic card like my sister,” Takuya Yokota said.

    Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times

    Takuya, left, and Tetsuya Yokota, Megumi Yokota’s twin brothers. She was abducted by North Koreans in 1977 when she was 13. “I don’t think they would easily kill a precious diplomatic card like my sister,” Takuya Yokota said.

The Japanese government insists otherwise, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeatedly calling for North Korea to return the remaining abductees as part of his broader hawkish approach to the North.

Now President Donald Trump also plans to press the cause, meeting during a visit to Japan starting Sunday with several of the affected families, including the parents of Megumi Yokota, abducted by North Korea in 1977 when she was 13 years old.

Here in Japan, the tragic disappearances strike a deeper emotional chord than the fear of ballistic missile attacks, and have resonance akin to that of the fate of American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Interviews with family members regularly appear in the Japanese media, and the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea raises hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

“The abductee issue pulls at the heartstrings of the general public in a way that no other issue can,” said Richard Samuels, a Japan specialist and the director of the MIT Center for International Studies. “Because it’s about innocent people.”

Unlike others who have fallen prey to North Korea after traveling there, the kidnapped Japanese citizens were taken from their hometowns to train spies there, leaving families wondering for years if they had run away or been murdered.

Now, with family members getting older, they are desperate to secure their loved ones’ return.

“This is a matter of life and death,” said Masaru Honma, 73, one of four living siblings of Yaeko Taguchi, a bar hostess and divorced mother who was kidnapped by North Korea 39 years ago. “There is a time limit.”

Honma said he and his family believe Taguchi — who would now be 62 — is still alive in North Korea. They occasionally get snippets of information from defectors, but their faith rests predominantly on the word of one woman: Kim Hyon-hui, a former North Korea spy who says Taguchi tutored her in Japanese language and culture so she could pass as Japanese while traveling abroad.

When Kim visited Japan decades later in 2010, she met with Honma, along with another brother and Taguchi’s son. On the back of a photograph taken during that visit, Kim scrawled a cryptic message in slightly awkward Japanese: “Definitely welcome home.”

Kim, in an interview in Seoul, said she had wanted to give Taguchi’s family a thread of hope, and let them know that she believed the missing woman would someday make it home.

Kim, a convicted terrorist who helped plant a bomb on a Korean Air Lines flight in 1987 that killed 115 people, was given a presidential pardon in South Korea, which has since used her for propaganda purposes and to provide information about the North.

She says that in the 1980s, she lived with Taguchi in Tongbuk-ri, south of Pyongyang, for almost two years. She has also said that she once met Yokota, the girl who was captured at 13, and that Yokota also had tutored another North Korean spy.

Kim says she has not seen either of the women for more than 30 years, but that does not matter to the victims’ families.

“Kim Hyon-hui said Yaeko is definitely alive,” said Honma. “Even though it’s been a long time since she last met Yaeko, her talk made us feel that she is still alive in North Korea.”

In a recent interview in Seoul, where Kim traveled with five secret service escorts from her home in an undisclosed location in South Korea, she described how Taguchi gave her cultural pointers on table manners, makeup and hand gestures between July 1981 and March 1983.

North Korean authorities say Taguchi died in a car accident in 1986. But Kim said she had spoken to a driver who said he had seen Taguchi alive a year after that.

“I still believe they are alive,” Kim said of Taguchi and the other Japanese abductees. “Those who are compliant and just listen to the North Korean authorities are given basic necessities and treated as foreigners living in North Korea.”

The North Korean government released five abductees in 2002 after Junichiro Koizumi, then Japan’s prime minister, went to Pyongyang for a summit meeting. It also provided death certificates — and in two cases, bones — for eight others whom the North admitted kidnapping in the 1970s and 1980s.

But the families say that the death certificates were faked and that DNA tests indicated the bones did not come from their loved ones. The Japanese government does not officially acknowledge their deaths.

“I don’t think they would easily kill a precious diplomatic card like my sister or Yaeko Taguchi,” said Takuya Yokota, 49, a younger brother of Megumi Yokota.

Takuya Yokota and his twin brother were 9 when their 13-year-old sister disappeared from coastal Niigata. Takuya Yokota still recalls the day she did not come home from badminton practice, and how they helped their mother search for her as dusk fell.

The Yokotas also met with Kim in 2010. “She could not say much because she was surrounded by South Korean intelligence and police,” Takuya Yokota said. “But she did tell my mother, ‘She’s all right, and you don’t have to worry.’” North Korea maintains Yokota committed suicide in 1994.

Kim is somewhat vague about how she knows that either Taguchi or Yokota is still alive.

She said the women had probably picked up classified information from working with spies, so it made sense for North Korea to declare them dead.

But, she said, “I do not think they have passed away, because the reasons that North Korea gave for their deaths are not reasonable.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Su-hyun Lee from Seoul.

Copyright © 2017 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
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